Big Joy

One of the most uplifting books I’ve read recently is The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. I’ve spoken about this book several times, because it’s so inspirational. It’s based on interviews with his Holiness the Dalai Lama and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, conducted by Douglas Abrams. Both Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have survived more than 50 years of exile and the violence of oppression. Yet, despite these hardships, they are/were two of the most joyful people on the planet.

In April of 2015, Desmond Tutu travelled to the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India to celebrate the latter’s 80th birthday, and to create this book. In the interviews, they focused on a single question: in the midst of life’s inevitable suffering, how do we find joy? Throughout the conversations that took place, these two spiritual leaders were by turn mischievous, joking, teasing, serious, and wise. By the end of the week, they had revealed how to live a life filled with joy. As we know, being able to find moments of joy and happiness despite difficulties and worries is so important to our spiritual balance.

So, last week when I saw that there was a 90-minute documentary created around this incredible week, I had to see it. It’s called “Mission: Joy – Finding Happiness in Troubled Times.” It was not only a memorable recap of their most important messages in the book, but it really brought to life the deep and unique friendship the two of them shared. It was all the more poignant to see the two of them engaging with each other, knowing that Desmond Tutu had prostate cancer and that they would never see each other again. (Desmond Tutu died in 2021.)

Now, here’s what I really want to share with you. At the end of the film was an invitation to join something called “The Big Joy Project.” I checked it out to see what it was all about and decided to sign up. The project currently has over 64,000 participants in 200-plus countries. Participants engage in a micro-act of joy every day for 7 days, and we answer some basic questions about how we are feeling. Each act takes only a few minutes. At the end of the week, we will receive a personal profile and guidance on what kinds of activities bring us the most joy.

The Big Joy Project is part of a research project headed by Dacher Keltner at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley, California. Dacher Keltner is the same scientist I quoted some months back in my sermon on awe. He and the researchers who are working with him are seeking to better understand what makes us happy and joyful. And one of the things they are discovering is that there is no single formula, no one-size-fits-all program. So that’s one of the cool things about the Big Joy Project. By participating, we get to find out what unique combination of actions works best for us.

I’ll let you know how my results turn out. And if you decide to join, I hope you’ll let me know how it works for you.

I’ll be on vacation next month and on study leave in August, so for most of you, I will see you in September. I hope you all enjoy your summer and that you find moments of joy and happiness every single day.

What We Can Learn From Conservative Organizations

I have a favorite quote by Susan B. Anthony. She said: “Think your own thoughts, speak your best words, do your best work, looking to your own conscience for approval.” I think the reason these words appeal to me so much is that they affirm the validity of our own ideas and experiences as sources of religious authority. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our religious forebears, wrote similar sentiments when he spoke of “self-reliance” and urged us, “Trust thyself.” Emerson, unfortunately, has frequently had his concept of self-reliance misconstrued as radical individualism, when in fact, he was referring to an individual’s freedom of belief.

We value our right to this individual freedom; in fact, it is, in a way, at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. It’s the one dogma in our non-dogmatic faith, some might say! It’s stated very clearly in the UU Association’s bylaws, often referred to as the “liberty clause:” “Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages…”

A recent study describes the majority of Unitarian Universalists and other liberal thinkers as:

• Being strongly inner directed
• Tending to be non-conformists
• Having little loyalty to authority or institutions
• Tending to be experimental, especially in terms of theology
• Being deeply concerned about social issues

We are deeply concerned about social issues, and we’re distressed about some of the things we’re witnessing and hearing about. Religious and political conservatives are also concerned about social issues, although their agenda is usually quite different from ours. There is a dynamic that I think is at the core of the difference between progressives (religious or political) and extreme conservatives (religious or political). It comes down to deeply-held priorities. Progressives tend to value individualism over the whole body  whether that body is a congregation, an organization or a larger movement. Those on the far right tend to value conformity, presenting a united front and speaking with a single voice. They value the larger group and its aims over and above their individual differences and have a much higher loyalty to authority and institutions.

Conservative organizations like the American Principles Project, for example, which fought against gay marriage, rather than falling apart once their mission failed, scrambled to maintain the organization and its membership by shifting to another cause –attacking transgender rights, especially for young people. You don’t often hear about a lot of internal bickering and disagreement within far-right circles. They tend to pull together and conform to the agenda, whatever that may be. Supporters of an extreme conservative agenda have been meeting and strategizing in formal think tanks for the past 50 years or more, forging common goals and common language to articulate that agenda, and willing to shift their focus as necessary.

We have seen throughout history that the more people are fully committed to a particular cause, the more likely it is that change will occur. So why do those of us who believe in equal rights and environmentally sound policies (the majority of Americans), have to struggle so hard to be heard? And why isn’t Unitarian Universalism a voice that is heard more loudly and clearly in our society? Is it because of our small numbers? That could be a factor, but I believe the main issue is that we have continually been in tension between our ethical stance and our commitment to individual freedom of belief.

It turns out that we value not only individual freedom of belief, but we value our individualism in general. And it’s this individualism, our rejection of conformity and discomfort with authority, that can prevent us from working together as a whole congregation and as a whole denomination, speaking together with one loud prophetic voice. Are we inherently doomed to keep chasing our tails, each in our own little circles? I don’t think so. But we need to learn to temporarily let go of our individualism in times when standing united could further the realization of our common ideals. The far right knows how to do it, and do it well, and UU’s and other progressive organizations could benefit from ending the micromanaging and infighting that stalls forward progress. For example, anti-racism work among white members of some UU congregations has led to conflict, frustration and disgust because of a climate of finger-pointing and accusations, rather than a compassionate commitment to learning together.

Most of us are involved in UUism because we want to learn and grow and to work together to make the world a better place. Together we can find ways to speak loudly and clearly, because as progressives and religious liberals, we share many common goals in the larger picture. If we can put aside our individual differences about the details for the sake of working together on a united agenda, one based on compassion and dignity, justice and freedom, and respect and responsibility for the earth, we have the power to change the world.

Day of Promise

On this day of promise,
The grass green and the buds
Straining into leaves on shrubs and trees,
And the birds singing, joyfully, in the dawn.
Everywhere life, life bursting through all fetters,
And the heart singing
Shouting its defiance of clouds and cold.
This is a day that aches with the promise of life,
Life which will not be denied.
Let all hearts swell with glad acceptance,
Joyful with the sense of the always becoming,
For out of earth, into the air and sunshine, out of ourselves,
There rises the Spirit of Life,
Neither dark nor threat shall thrust it down.
It is a spirit that rises irresistibly in us.
This is the season’s gift.

–Robert T. Weston, adapted

Nature and the universe are always miraculous, but there is something about living in a northern climate and experiencing the awakening of life in its multitude of forms that makes us pay attention. And, being naturally oriented toward ourselves as individuals and as a species, it’s not difficult to draw parallels between what is happening in nature and what happens inside us. As in Robert T. Weston’s reading, just as the birds sing and the buds swell, so may our hearts sing and swell with the coming of spring.

And as Mark Nepo has written of Nature, “we are quietly given countless models of how to give ourselves over to what appears dark and hopeless, but which ultimately is an awakening beyond all imagining.” This movement from the metaphorical dormant bud to the open blossom, he suggests, is the “threshold to God.” Similarly, Robert T. Weston writes that out of the earth and out of ourselves “rises the Spirit of Life.”

But how, exactly, in this season, are we to move from the darkness of dormancy to the sunshine? In my own experience, I have found that it doesn’t always happen spontaneously. It doesn’t necessarily happen simply by observing or listening to or even breathing in the signs of Nature’s awakening. I can’t think myself into a feeling of glad acceptance or joy. I can’t think my way over the threshold to God, or to the rising of the Spirit of Life within myself.

I am writing this on a cloudy day in Pennsylvania, a state that is infamous for the number days per year that its land is overarched by cloud cover. I am bothered that my mood often seems to be dependent on the weather, although I am convinced that there is more to it than a simple psychosomatic response, as some suggest. But these cloudy days also provide time for introspection and potentially, new insights.

What came to me today is that the pathway to an experience of the awesomeness of Nature comes not just from drinking in the multitude of growth and change all around us through our normal sensory awareness. Rather, it comes from feeling its energy. By what mechanism we can feel this energy I can’t say. We do know that just because we can’t measure something, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

When we open ourselves to sensing the actual energy of cells dividing, buds popping, petals opening, hormones flowing, so much movement and energy being created and expended –that’s when we can really feel it and allow our consciousness – our minds and our hearts and our spirits – to identify and merge with that energy. That’s when we may experience the irresistible rising of our spirits, a sense of oneness with all that is living, the threshold to God.

These thoughts remind me of a particular spring morning when I was nine or ten years old. I not only felt the energy – I literally saw it. I was standing out in the front yard, just about this time of year. The sun bright and warm on my skin, hundreds of tiny red maple flowers above me, daffodils and forsythia shining brightly yellow in front of me, green grass under my feet. Multitudes of birds were singing, and insects buzzed around. I became mesmerized, and my eyes began to perceive the energy, sparkling brightly and vibrating throughout the air. I simply stood there, not moving, for a long time, until at last, the vision faded.

Many years later, I learned that this was an experience of panentheism, of the immanence of the sacred. I am not normally given to visions. But I carry that memory and that is how I know that the energy of Nature is a very real thing. And while we may not often see it, we may feel it if we pause long enough.

Dwelling in the mystery and miracle of Nature, we celebrate life and its inherent perfection. As we do so we can also celebrate ourselves, who we are in this very moment, which is always perfect. In this moment, we don’t have to do or be anything or anyone else. In this moment, we are perfect, just as we are. And then, the Spirit of Life may rise within us. This, as Robert Weston, reminds us, is the gift of the season.

The Black Empowerment Controversy Resources and Reflections

We learn our history to help us know who we are. This is true on many levels, including our faith, our religion. It’s important for us as UUs to know something about those who went before us, so we can better understand what Unitarian Universalism is today and how we fit into it, both as individuals and as a congregation.

This past Sunday, I preached about the UU Black Empowerment Controversy of the late 60s and early 70s. Following the service, a number of people asked about resources, so I will provide them here.
First, if you’d like to read more about this difficult and painful controversy, there is an article in the January 2012 issue of the UU World written by Mark Morrison-Reed, a UU minister who is African American. You can access the article here: Even greater detail is in the book, Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice.

Those of us who are white and liberal want to what is right, and this includes our commitment to racial justice. I had spoken about artificial dualities in the meditation on Sunday. As I was preaching the sermon and recounting the history, I realized something. And that is the idea that there is one right way and one wrong way (or one right way and many wrong ways!) to overcome racism. We all (whatever our racial identity) want to do the “right thing” regarding racial justice. It suddenly became clear that insisting on this dichotomy is what got us into trouble back then, and it eventually devolved into infighting and deep disappointment and bitterness.

And we have the same problem going on today. What I have come to realize is that there is no one “right thing.” There is an organization that has sprung up recently, and which presented a conference a few weeks ago. This organization exists because it disagrees with their understanding of the UUA’s approach to antiracism (the current “right thing” being put forth), and so most of the presentations focused on why the UUA’s focus and efforts are wrong.

Finger-pointing is not going to solve anything. One criticism some make of the “UUA’s approach” is that that it consists of holier-than-thou behavior, “I’m woke and you’re not” kind of stuff. I don’t believe that is the intent of the UUA’s message at all. If white UUs are engaged in this kind of shaming behavior, and I don’t doubt that it shows up here and there, that is a problem, and it is troubling. A healthy community follows the principles of the Beloved Community which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr spoke so much about. Agape love –caring deeply for each other because of our shared humanity, seeing the sacred in each other; nonviolence, doing no harm; and welcoming otherness – a desire to find out more about the other person rather than shaming them. Focusing on who’s right and who’s wrong denies these principles.

Some white UUs have a strong negative reaction to learning that some of the attitudes and assumptions they have long held are being questioned. They thought they were “good” people, but now they are being told that they are “bad” people. For us white liberals, it is hard to hear, for sure. We are always well-intentioned. It’s shocking to realize that we may have unintentionally harmed someone. We are not bad people for being uninformed. If we are committed to learning and growing in our quest to become antiracists, that is the point.

I’ve had some difficult moments in my own education. I referred to micro-aggressions in my sermon. These are little hurts that add up in the life of one who is a member of an oppressed group. These hurts have been compared to receiving “a thousand paper cuts.”

One morning, when I was working as a substitute teacher in a mostly black charter school in Connecticut, I complimented one of the office staff, a black woman, on her hair. She just stared at me and then said, “It’s a WIG.” “Well, it looks nice anyway,” I replied, a bit mystified at her annoyance. I later learned that white people’s comments about black women’s hair are usually not appreciated, and I had also exposed my ignorance about the use of wigs by black women. But don’t take my word for it. Do some reading on the topic.

Another time, I called a black woman in a congregation I was serving, inviting her to be a member of the internship committee for an intern I was supervising, because “it would be helpful for the intern to have the perspective of a black woman.” There was a pause, and then she said that if that was the only reason, she would not do it. I sensed I had offended her, and quickly added that her background in social work would be an asset to the committee. She replied that if that was my reason, she would agree to serve.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when I read more about tokenism and how hurtful it can be, that I realized this was exactly what I had done. I had asked this woman to represent her race, which never feels good, rather than expressing how I valued her as an individual.
We say and do these things not intending to hurt anyone. We say and do them because we haven’t thought ahead or learned how and why they might hurt someone whose experience in this society is very different from our own. If you are interested in learning more about common sorts of micro-aggressions, here is one resource:

This is not an exhaustive list, and you may want to do a search on micro-aggressions and read several compilations. And please remember, when you find yourself reacting along the lines of, “Oh, come on, ‘these people’ are being too sensitive,” that is the part of ourselves that has absorbed the messages of the “overculture,” aka the white supremacist society. It doesn’t matter if we think someone might be overreacting. The person whose toe has been stepped on is still in pain.

UUs who are interested in furthering antiracism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism will want to visit the UUA webpage on Antiracism, Multiculturalism and Belonging at:, which has a multitude of resources.
UUCD has adopted the 8th Principle, which means it has made a commitment as a congregation to further antiracism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism within and beyond its walls. I support this commitment wholeheartedly. Let’s keep the conversation going about what our next steps might be. I would love to hear your thoughts, questions and ideas.

Welcoming the Stranger

I used to officiate at quite a few weddings. With a marriage, there are both losses and gains that come with the entry into this new phase of life. There’s the loss of single personhood and the primary identification with one’s family of origin. But there’s also the potential joy that comes with marrying into each other’s families and all the new relationships that are formed as a result. We tend to focus only on the positives, the gains, at a wedding ceremony. Yet I think it can be of value to acknowledge the losses involved in making a transition like this.

We know that there are blessings and losses with any change. And as a congregation, we know that we are not static. Our community is always in flux. We had a wonderful experience on Sunday with a contingent from UUFN (The UU Fellowship of Newark) joining us on Zoom. It really felt great to know that, between those in the sanctuary and those on Zoom, we had over 55 people attending. Most of us would love to have more folks joining us on Sunday morning. There are many benefits to a larger community. We could offer a wider variety of inspiring programs and activities, including religious education for our children and youth. With more people, we could accomplish more “church work”  both internally and in the larger world. We could build a stronger financial base with which to do this work.

But perhaps even more important to many of us is this: having found something of great spiritual and personal value for ourselves, we want to share it with others. If our faith were truly wonderful, why would we not want to encourage other free-thinking, liberally religious people to join us? As the late UU minister William Burnside Miller commented in his essay, Dangerous Myths, “In a sense, if we do not [invite others to join us], we are passing a terrible judgment on ourselves and the choices we have made.”

We say we would like to have more members, but I think we need to acknowledge that we have ambivalence about changing the makeup of our community – ambivalence that is quite natural. It has to do with losses. As with weddings, we often focus on the positives of growing and minimize what we might lose (or what we think we might lose) by growing. One thing that a lot of us find comfortable about our current community is that, after we have been around for a while, we know quite a few people in the congregation.

When we imagine walking into an all-congregation event, let’s say a summer picnic, would we rather find a group of people we already know, people with whom we can let down our guard and just be ourselves? Or a group, many unfamiliar to us, who we can only come to know over time through our efforts to reach out to them? Well, maybe it depends a little bit on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert! But the reality is, it’s human to feel more comfortable with what (and who) we know. And growth and change mean the loss of some measure of comfort and familiarity.

Miller believed that many UU churches do not really want to grow. After all, he says, if we have discovered “Truth” with a capital “T,” and we believe that only a small elite can possibly attain that goal, we’d want to be careful about just who we let in. Maybe our way can only appeal to a few people like us who are truly superior, he says.

Do we really believe that? I hope not, and I don’t think we do. But we do know that some small congregations operate more as if they are a club than a beloved community that welcomes the stranger into their midst.

I don’t believe we have an exclusive, “club” mentality; I have seen our newcomers being welcomed warmly by many of you. But I think we need to ask ourselves: Can we live with a little discomfort in order share our faith with newcomers? And can we stand the fact that of course new folks will bring their own ideas about how things might be done? That means more change! And more discomfort. In order to be truly welcoming to new people, we must accept that some discomfort is healthy and normal. And as with any change, there are both blessings and losses.

Publicity helps to attract newcomers. But, if we really want to see more new folks join us, in person or online, the most effective way to make that happen is for members to invite friends and acquaintances. We have scheduled a “Bring-a-Friend-Sunday” for April 23rd. So please consider inviting someone –or several “someones” – to attend. The topic will be Ralph Waldo Emerson as spiritual guide. But, of course, you don’t have to wait until April. Let us reach out to those around us, to those who need our spiritual message and who can help us become a stronger voice for liberal religion in central Delaware.

Cradles and Coffins

A number of years ago, a colleague, Barbara Child, described a service that the congregation she was serving did for the first service of the year. She was new to this congregation, and it was clear that they expected her to continue the tradition (you know how important those church traditions can be!) All they gave her was the name of it – something about a “Coffin and Cradle” service – and that it generally had something to do with burying the old and birthing the new. So, armed with these bare facts, she took it from there.

The congregation’s secretary provided an old cradle in which she had been rocked as a baby and which she was about to use for her second child. Rev. Child recalled having seen a rough plank coffin in a neighboring front yard on Halloween. She admitted it felt just a little odd, knocking on the neighbor’s door in late December and asking, “Pardon me, but may I borrow your coffin?” (Once she explained her intent, however, they were happy to oblige!)

With these simple props, she led the congregation in a service in which they honored both what they wished to bury from the past and what they wished to “birth,” or bring into being, in the coming year.

The date of January 1st is artificial and arbitrary as a beginning, but there’s still something about the start of January that lends itself to a special consciousness of saying goodbye to what has been and greeting what is yet to come. January is named for the Roman god Janus, who was a gate-keeper with two faces – to enable him to simultaneously look backward and forward.

During the “Coffin and Cradle” service, members of the congregation were invited to come forward and place either objects or written messages into the coffin for things they wanted to let go of and into the cradle, for their hopes of what would come to be in the coming year.

There is power in ritual, in taking symbolic action. And we are free to create rituals that have meaning for us. Sometimes we make written lists of “resolutions” for the coming year. For a few of us, that actually works! But, if you’d like to try something a little different this year, here’s one idea that comes out of the “Coffin and Cradle” concept which you could easily adapt at home. As you reflect over the past year and your hopes for the future, you might try recording your thoughts on two pieces of paper, in words or in pictures. On one, you could make a large outline of a coffin. On the other, a large outline of a cradle. Within each outline, then, you could list or depict what you want to bury and what you want to give birth to. You might take two boxes, one to symbolize the coffin and the other to symbolize the cradle, and place each list in the appropriate place. But before you do so, you might try saying out loud what each list contains. Speaking our intentions can make them more real.

The coffin serves as a way to help us personally bury whatever we are ready to bury and need to bury to get on with our lives. And the cradle serves to help us – not to make resolutions that we will most likely not keep – but instead, to help us envision what we’d like to give birth to in ourselves in this coming year.

The coffin gives us an opportunity to let go of the past, to “dismantle sorrow while keeping the best of what was,” as Rev. Child puts it. It’s a chance to cast off old skins, to move out of a place where we have been stuck. To shed a dream that was not destined to come true. To drop a souvenir that is too heavy to keep carrying. To break a tie that binds too tightly. To acknowledge an ending that has already happened.

The cradle is a chance to welcome the future. To take one small action to start the process of manifesting your hopes. To begin to realize the potential you have recognized, even dimly, within yourself. A chance to move toward growth, to where the channels of your life are leading. To give yourself the courage to follow where the spirit and your inner wisdom lead you. To invite something new to begin in you.

I wish all of you a Happy New Year. May your “coffins” be at peace, and your “cradles” rock with new life.

The Christmas Spirit

“Perhaps the most characteristic element of Christmas, and the most valued thing about it, is what we call ‘the Christmas spirit,’ its joy, its reassessment of life as good, the warmth of human relations that it engenders, often renewing human contacts, modifying class distinctions and old enmities in joyous fellowship of old and young, and in the giving of gifts and services. This persistent spirit is difficult to explain as a seasonal thing, but no one questions its genuineness.”
– Author unknown

I remember a Christmas, over 40 years ago now, when my belief in the Christmas spirit was seriously tested. I was working at my first job out of college, as a grounds manager for Rodale Press in Pennsylvania. Employees had been given the afternoon of the 24th off. It was a crisp day, I had just gotten paid and as I walked to my car, I saw that snow had begun to fall lightly. I was looking forward to getting home to our house out in the country and driving to Connecticut with my then-husband that night to see my family. Then I discovered that my car wouldn’t start.

I called my husband, Joe, at work and he and I spent the afternoon in the Rodale parking lot taking turns under the vehicle, replacing the starter motor. It still wasn’t working right (we later learned that the part was defective), but we finally got it going, and Joe agreed to follow me home in his company car. But Joe had a temper and something set him off. He roared away, leaving me to fend for myself. I got a few miles down the road, but the car wasn’t running well and I pulled into a K-Mart parking lot, where the motor died and wouldn’t restart.

Fortunately, there was a motel across the street. There was also a phone booth, but I couldn’t call Joe because we had no telephone at the house. I called garages and towing services. No one would tow a car on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, much less service it. The police couldn’t offer any help. The owner of the motel, after hearing my story, invited me into his small living room, where I saw stockings hung on the mantel. He offered me a glass of sherry and an extra blanket, as the night was growing frigid, with a blustering wind.

I admit I spent the evening feeling pretty sorry for myself, watching bits of the Christmas specials that were on every channel. The next morning, I made a decision. I would hitchhike to my friend and co-worker Jan’s house. She and her husband were spending Christmas at home with her mother. I was reluctant to intrude on (as I perceived it) their Christmas celebration, but I didn’t know what else to do. Still wearing my old, grubby gardening clothes, I put out my thumb as the first car approached. Was it my imagination, or was that a dirty look I got as the car sped by? The scene repeated itself over and over. I began to imagine where these people were going, in their Christmas finery  most of them to visit relatives, I assumed. Judging by the stares I was getting, I also began imagining what they thought of me  “what kind of low-life loser would be out there on Christmas Day in this freezing weather? She must have no friends or family, or she’d be with them.” Or, at least: “We don’t have time to pick anyone up –we’ll be late for our family gathering.”

The wind was still blowing fiercely, making the wind chill factor below zero, and I stood out there for at least an hour, getting colder by the minute –– when at last, a car pulled to a stop beyond me. Nearly overwhelmed with gratitude, I got into the front seat of the blissfully warm car, sitting between the man who was driving and his wife on the other side. (The backseat was full of presents.) I thanked them profusely and briefly related my situation to them. They understood completely, saying that just that morning their own car had broken down and they were borrowing this one from someone. They took me most of the way to Jan’s house.

Jan, her husband and mother were shocked to see me, but welcomed me warmly into their home. Later that afternoon, Joe appeared at the door, looking exhausted and stricken. He had spent the night looking for me and was filled with remorse over his behavior  and I forgave him.

In my younger days, when I recalled this story, I would focus on the unfairness of it all and the people who didn’t or couldn’t help when I needed it. Christmas, I thought bitterly, was really a time when families focused inward, on their own pleasure. I had privately concluded that the Christmas spirit was nothing more than a myth. But later on, with the deeper wisdom that time sometimes brings, I realized I had closed myself to the gifts I had been given. These days, when I remember that Christmas, I see instead images of the motel owner, of the couple who gave me a lift, of my co-worker and her family: people, who in giving of themselves, embodied the true meaning of the Christmas spirit. And whether they know it or not, I will always be grateful to those individuals – not only for their generosity and kindness, but for saving me from becoming a Christmas cynic. May you find the Christmas spirit to be alive and well in your own lives this holiday season.

Welcome All the Guests

I have this poem taped to my refrigerator:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

(Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, published in Rumi: Selected Poems, with English translation by Coleman Barks.)

Joy? Sure! Come on in! A new awareness? Yes, I’ll take it! But meanness or malice, shame or depression…? OK, yes, I know we should feel all our feelings, but welcome them all? On an intellectual level, I understand Rumi’s message. We know that we learn and grow through the difficult experiences. But sometimes those feelings can be excruciatingly painful. I remember after my brother died, going to the fridge to make lunch and reading through the poem. “Meet them at the door laughing!” I forced myself to laugh out loud. It was a mirthless sound. I sighed, took a deep breath and said to myself, “This too shall pass,” as all feelings do. And, of course, those feelings of intense grief and sadness did fade over time.

I want to acknowledge that for many of us, the holidays are a time of mixed emotions. As humans, we find comfort in the expected and the anticipated, the rituals and the traditions that we repeat again and again, whether it’s a simple daily routine or a set of holiday customs. When I was a young child, I naively thought that my family’s traditions would just go on forever. But of course, as the years go by, we grow and change and so does everyone else around us. People move away (or perhaps we move), relationships end, new people marry into the family, children are born and grow up, people we love die.

And then there are the short days and long nights, which are great for getting Christmas cactuses to bloom, but which for many of us humans are a time when we struggle with our mood. I myself used to feel very down at Christmas because of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), before I learned about the benefits of vitamin D supplements and therapeutic light boxes.

The holidays can be especially difficult when we are grieving a loss such as a major change, a death, or a breakup. I think it’s precisely because of the holiday traditions and rituals that our losses often come into sharper focus. We all experience life differently, and that includes grief. And it includes our healing process. Our path of healing is uniquely ours and has its own timeline, which usually is not linear, as you may have experienced.

As difficult as it may be during this time, I encourage you all to find some quiet time to take care of yourself. Meditation or quiet reflection can be very helpful. In sitting with our grief, we can listen to our thoughts and feel our feelings. We can cultivate tenderness and patience toward ourselves. As we do so, we may gain a greater sense of acceptance, and an ability to let go of some of the unhelpful thoughts. We can also practice mindfulness as we go about our days, reminding ourselves to stay present to the moment, and drawing ourselves away from unhelpful ruminations.

A gratitude practice can also help. We can challenge ourselves to sit for a period of time and just repeat the phrase, “I am grateful for…” and fill in the blank. All our body parts, inside and out. Bones and skin. Our house, the heat, the running water, the food in the refrigerator and in the pantry. Whatever you see or think of, name it. This practice really does make a difference. It helps place our sadness and grief a little out of our central focus and move a feeling of abundance and joy more front and center.

And there may be moments when we can see the long view. Even if the “guests” in our house are a crowd of sorrows, we can try to be patient with life, knowing that they may be clearing us out for some new delight. Only time will tell.

A Psalm for the Season

Once again, we approach the season of endings and of beginnings, of long, dark nights and bright celebrations. And, yes, the cold and the snow. Whether you relish or despise or just try to get through the weather at this time of year depends upon your perspective.

I recently ran across something I had written while I was in theological school. It’s the equivalent of a modern-day psalm, incorporating some of the structures and patterns in the biblical psalms. Writing it gave me an opportunity to reflect on my attitudes toward the winter season, and I offer it to you for your own reflection.


Some call you the season of ugliness
With dirty snow and leafless trees
But I say winter is a lovely time.

Pristine after a snowfall, trees blanketed in perfection.
Some curse you as they slide on slippery roadways with anxious hearts
Careening toward mundane destinations,
While others find wonder, strapping on skis and gliding into the wood with glad hearts,
Moving in rhythm toward unknown delights.

Those who look for the dark side of life will find it
Just as surely as God’s handiwork is revealed to those who seek it.
It is in the delicate lacework on the edge of an icy stream;
It is in the contrast of red twig dogwoods against sparkling white.

I have found God in the wintry wood.
On a snow covered trail I felt God’s presence.
I planted skis and poles and heard only crunching sounds as I ascended the hillside.
I climbed steadily until I reached the top.
The wood was silent, the sky a silken cloth of purest blue;
The oaks stood in quiet majesty, the snow a royal carpet over the hibernating ground.
I stood exhilarated and in awe of your beauty
The beauty of you, winter, and the splendor of God.

Some call you the season of ugliness
But I say winter is a lovely time.

Whatever your perspective on the winter months, this month, as we prepare for the holidays, my hope for you is that you will find moments of stillness and moments of joyful attentiveness to the small miracles that are all around us.

A Different Sort of Grace

When I was a young child, my family would often go to my grandparents’ house for a mid-afternoon Sunday dinner. My grandfather would say grace before we were allowed to start eating. He told me and my siblings that we should bow our heads and clasp our hands together. This was not a ritual we practiced in my own household, as my parents had joined the Unitarian Universalist Society and had decided to leave such things in the past. We would remain quiet as we listened to Grandad’s prayer and then move on to the meal. Saying grace didn’t hold meaning for me. We didn’t even use the word “God” in our household.

Over the years, I’ve engaged in some pre-meal gratitude practices. When I was raising my own children, we would read from a daily inspirational reader, or from a short hand-made book of “Unitarian” graces. When I served as chaplain at Camp Unirondack, we sang one of a number of different graces before the meal.

I have recently begun a new ritual, one that is much more meaningful to me. When Native American peoples refer to “all my relations” in speaking of the plants, animals, and non-living things of the Earth and the Sky, they are not engaging in an intellectual exercise. When a person lives in close proximity to everything of the earth and sky, they develop actual relationships with each entity. When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I worked as an environmental consultant, walking parcels of land and delineating wetlands, areas that were under State and Federal protections. As I engaged in this work day after day, I became intimately familiar with the plant communities I encountered.

I became able often to identify plants and trees from a distance by the shape of the leaves, the shade of green, the angle of their branches, each species with its cluster of unique characteristics. I knew how they responded to the rhythms of the seasons –when the wildflowers emerged in spring, when they bloomed, and where I might find them –on a rocky hillside or in damp conditions near a stream, for example. In a similar way in which we come to know the habits and nuances of someone we are close to, I came to know these plants. They became like familiar friends.

I was thinking about this as I began my practice. Before each meal now, I take a few moments to express gratitude to Mother Earth for providing what the plants and animals need to grow and to each plant or animal that contributed to my meal. And I also give thanks to all the people who helped bring this food to my table. I’ve started to make a point of picturing each ingredient before me, the plant or animal from which it came. It’s easy when it comes to the vegetables from my garden. But we live in an age where many of us are very disconnected from the sources of the foods we consume. I remember long ago working with a young woman who didn’t know where hamburger meat came from. That might be an extreme example, but as I continued to engage in saying thank you for my food, I became aware that in some cases, I had no mental image for the plant that produced, say, nutmeg, or lentils, or chocolate.

And so I have begun to educate myself. I now read the ingredient list on my cereal box and on any other processed food I eat. I thank each plant that produced each ingredient. What is malitol? It comes from “starch,” I learn. From corn, I guess. As so I thank the corn plant. I recently made a curried lentil salad. There are eight spices in the curry I create for this recipe. I have looked up nutmeg and seen a picture of the nutmeg tree. I learned that the nut grows inside a fruit. And that the “skin” of the nut is what is used to make allspice, another ingredient in my curry.

I’ve been watching an inspiring series on Netflix called “Down to Earth.” The hosts travel around the world and feature various people and projects contributing to sustainability. It’s exciting to learn about the positive differences they are making. In one episode, featuring a sustainable organic farm in Costa Rica, I saw a cacao fruit being opened up, revealing the seeds inside, which are what is used to make chocolate. I never knew!

I am finding that as I engage in this gratitude practice, I must include the rain, and the sun, the water that runs within the earth. I want to know just how a cacao seed becomes chocolate. I want to “meet” and get to know the plants that produce the tropical spices and other imported foods I use. I want to know where, on what plot of Earth, these plants were grown. And who are the people who are growing these plants and harvesting them and getting them to the grocery store where I purchase them? Are they happy doing what they do? Are they being paid a fair wage? Or are they oppressed and being exploited?

We live in a time when many of us are increasingly disconnected from each other and from the Earth. My mealtime gratitude practice feels important to me. It’s a way that I can eat more consciously and to develop a greater feeling of kinship with the plants and animals that sustain and nourish me, and with the people who make it possible for those foods to come to my table. Because we are in a relationship and I want to honor that. It seems the least I can do.